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The village is empty and the boomers are all having far too much fun to bother changing a nappy. (Image: Tina Tiller)
The village is empty and the boomers are all having far too much fun to bother changing a nappy. (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyApril 18, 2024

Help Me Hera: My parents won’t help out with my kids

The village is empty and the boomers are all having far too much fun to bother changing a nappy. (Image: Tina Tiller)
The village is empty and the boomers are all having far too much fun to bother changing a nappy. (Image: Tina Tiller)

They pressured me to have children, and I had two. Now they won’t lift a finger.

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Hi Hera,

I suspect it’s a familiar pattern. Back in the day, as a single gal, I was plagued with questions from my parents about when I would find a man and settle down. Then when I met my one and did just that, I was plagued with questions about when the grandbabies were coming.

Now here we are, two kids later, and the grandparents are nowhere to be seen. The village is empty and the boomers are all having far too much fun to do anything as unsavoury as change a nappy. I hate to sound trite, but as everyone so readily reminds me, you don’t get this time back, and that rule applies to grandparents too.

When we do spend time together, it’s just heartbreaking to see my babies being scolded for making too much noise or mess when they are just being normal kids and playing together. I’m not being precious: I tell my kids off when it’s needed, but according to my parents, I’m failing to instil appropriate manners and boundaries.

How do I get them to understand that we not only want them to be more involved, but we desperately need the extra pairs of hands? Every request from us for a bit of grace (even just to watch them for an hour), is either flatly refused or comes with so many caveats you might as well not bother. So we stop asking.

It’s the natural order, isn’t it, that the grandparents do fun sleepovers and sneak them illicit ice creams? Is it selfish to ask that grandparents shoulder some of the responsibility? I’m sure (I know for a fact) that their own parents made a significant contribution to raising us. 

Having explained all this, you might think that my kids are just a nightmare. I assure you, even though I may be biased, that they are (mostly) delightful, and that’s what makes it even harder to take. They deserve to be both loved and liked for the wonderful little people that they are.

Help me Hera, I’m sick of losing sleep over this and I’m not a confrontational person, so how do I tackle this to improve our relationship?

A Fed-up Mum

A line of dark blue card suit symbols – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades

Dear Fed-up,

It used to be the conventional wisdom that it takes a village to raise a child. But the village has been auctioned off to property investors, and there’s a bargain shoe emporium where the town swingset used to be. 

I’m surprised by how common your complaint is. Raising kids is always tough, no matter what your financial or social circumstances. But even in times of austerity, people used to be able to depend on their extended family for the occasional night of free babysitting. 

Perhaps some of the problem is explained by people living geographically disparate lives. Your parents can’t easily pop over to babysit if you and your partner live in Demark. It’s also harder to look after grandkids if you can’t afford to retire, and are still working into your seventies. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that people are having children later, meaning this generation of grandparents are older and perhaps have less energy to run around after toddlers. But it seems like you’re struggling to get your parents to take any interest at all, which must be upsetting, especially considering they actively campaigned for you to reproduce in the first place. 

Of course, you can’t force your parents to take an interest. And there are limits to the kind of help people can be expected to offer. Just because you procreated once, it doesn’t mean you’re legally required to dispense free childcare for the rest of your natural life. But I feel like your hurt is completely understandable. Most grandparents are thrilled to be part of their grandchildren’s lives, and asking for the occasional hour of babysitting doesn’t strike me as a particularly onerous request. For most people, this wouldn’t be a chore, but a privilege. You’re not asking for much. And it must hurt to see your parents treating your invitation to be involved in their grandchildren’s lives as a personal inconvenience. 

Naturally, you hoped your parents and kids would have a meaningful and loving relationship. It must be bitterly disappointing to find they have little interest in spending time with your kids and when they do, are critical of their behaviour. I’m interested to know if your parents were like this when you were growing up. There are plenty of stories of former disciplinarians softening with age, and dispensing biscuits when their own children would have received punishment. But I’ve never heard of the reverse happening. 

Before giving up on them completely, it might be worth having a heart-to-heart conversation. I’d leave out any criticisms of their grandparenting style, and hold off on airing any grievances, like how exhausted you are, or what you feel they owe you. Simply say it would mean a lot to you if they tried to build a special relationship with your children and ask if there’s anything you could do to help facilitate that. It could be, for whatever reason, they’re feeling defensive, and a heartfelt conversation free of any perceived criticism might inspire them to be more generous or present. It could also provide you with some important emotional context you might be missing. 

Then again, it might have absolutely no effect at all.  

If you have a second set of more involved grandparents, you could try to leverage that against them and inspire a spirit of competitive, inter-grandparental jealousy. You could even pretend the kids miss spending time with them, whether or not that’s strictly true. Those unmotivated by a sense of duty can sometimes be won over by flattery. 

There’s a possibility that they’re just awkward around the kids, and don’t know how to love them. I had one set of grandparents who specialised in ice cream and trips to the park. But I also had a close relationship with my grandfather, a kind but eccentric man who spoke to children as if they had a PhD in astrophysics and bought us advanced medical anatomy textbooks for our birthdays. He wasn’t the kind to throw sleepovers, but he found other ways to show affection, like writing letters on horse-themed notepaper and taking me to the orchestra to hear Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It wasn’t a traditional relationship, and I’m sure my parents pulled a lot of strings behind the scenes. But it was meaningful to me. 

If your parents fall into this category, perhaps they need a little coaching. Do they have any hobbies they could include the kids in? Going to the cinema? Gardening? Memorising every bone in the human body? The problem may resolve itself when your kids get older. Some people are just naturally awkward around very young children. 

There’s also the possibility that your parents will never truly step up to the plate. 

If you really can’t get through to them, that’s disappointing, and I feel for your kids, who I’m sure are completely adorable and deserving of love. But that doesn’t mean they have to miss out on miniature train rides and trips to the duck pond. If your parents don’t want to be involved, the next best advice is to build your own village. Do you have any other relatives nearby – brothers or sisters or cousins who have shown an interest? Any kindly neighbourhood witches or eccentric lesbian aunts? Perhaps you already have a few close friends who adore your kids and might be honoured to be appointed godparents. You might be surprised at who is willing to step up, if invited. 

I hate giving this kind of advice because ideally we would live in a society where the burden of caring for children wasn’t the sole responsibility of the parents. But ultimately that genetic connection isn’t nearly as important as the experience of being loved unconditionally and spoiled absolutely rotten. If your parents aren’t up to the task, that doesn’t mean your kids will never have the kind of love your grandparents lavished on you. Just that you might have to look beyond your immediate family to find it. 

Best of luck, 


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